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The Stubborn Myths About Older Workers

When it comes to retirement, a significant cultural and demographic trend is taking place. Twenty-five years ago, only about one worker in 10 planned to stay in the workforce beyond age 65. Today, that number has risen to more than 50%. In fact, according to the 16th annual Transamerica retirement survey, 82% of 60-somethings expect to work or are already working past age 65.

Today’s boomers are not ready to stop working. They are better-educated, more physically fit than their parents and perhaps not as financially comfortable as they’d like to be. In short, they are defying stereotypes about an aging workforce and redefining retirement.

It’s not strictly a financial matter. “Money and access to healthcare are of considerable importance,” reports the AARP Public Policy Institute, “but so are the desires to remain active, make a contribution and maintain social relationships at work. Furthermore, these workers often enjoy what they are doing.”

Boomers are still working today at ages when their parents and grandparents had retired. This is particularly true in a service industry like insurance where physical strength is not an issue. Think of today’s 65-year-old worker as yesterday’s 50-year-old worker.

What is surprising is that few insurance firms have adapted to this new trend or have put policies and practices in place to accommodate today’s retirement reality.

Yet, when asked to name their greatest challenges, many insurance firms concede that finding and keeping qualified staff is at the top of their list and state that the loss of talented and experienced older workers is a key concern. This issue is further confirmed by the accounting firm PwC’s report that concludes the industry faces “a potentially massive loss of skilled, knowledgeable workers” as large numbers of older insurance workers approach their traditional retirement dates. The report notes that hiring millennials is only part of the solution and does not adequately address the transfer-of-knowledge issue.

See also: Why Are We Still Just Talking Diversity?  

Perhaps it isn’t so surprising after all. There remains a litany of stereotypes and negative perceptions to explain why firms tend to reject older workers, including:

  • Hiring managers tend to see older workers as more likely to be burned out, slow to accept or adapt to new technologies, more likely to miss work due to illness and poor at working with younger workers, especially younger supervisors; and
  • Many assume older workers are less creative, less productive, slower mentally and more expensive to employ than their millennial counterparts.

But current research negates these stereotypes:

  • According to a study this spring prepared by Aon Hewitt for AARP, “workers aged 50-plus can help employers address current and future talent shortages.” AARP and others have long argued that older workers are reliable, flexible and experienced and possess valuable institutional knowledge.
  • Writing in the AARP Bulletin on “The Value of Older Workers,” T.R. Reid reminds us that hiring skilled, vintage workers can be “a boon to employers, a boost for the U.S. economy and a bonus for the workers. For employers, the ‘unretired’ provide a pool of experienced labor that has proved to be productive, dedicated and loyal.”
  • One of last year’s blockbuster movies, The Intern, took notice of boomers reentering the workforce. Robert DeNiro played a septuagenarian whose experience and life skills help turn around the business run by the wonder-kid played by Anne Hathaway. His character pinpoints the reasons employers should want an older worker: “I’ve always been a company man,” he declares. “I’m loyal, I’m trustworthy and I’m calm in a crisis.”

Researchers at the University of Kentucky surveyed large and small companies to assess how employers evaluate their older workers. They uncovered seven perceived benefits of hiring older workers:

  1. Dedication to the organization
  2. Customer-service orientation
  3. Dependability
  4. High productivity
  5. Life experiences
  6. Strong work ethic
  7. Institutional knowledge

When it comes to actual job performance, Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the Wharton School of Business, is quoted in the AARP article, “The Surprising Truth about Older Workers,” as observing that older workers outperform their younger peers. “Every aspect of job performance gets better as we age,” he says. “I thought the picture might be more mixed, but it isn’t. The juxtaposition between the superior performance of older workers and the discrimination against them in the workplace just really makes no sense.”

Nathaniel Reade summarized Cappelli’s findings: “Older workers tend to be motivated by causes like community, mission and a chance to make the world a better place; younger workers are more driven by factors that directly benefit themselves, such as money and promotions. But perhaps the greatest asset older workers bring is experience — their workplace wisdom. They’ve learned how to get along with people, solve problems without drama and call for help when necessary.”

In a Sept. 18, 2015, U.S. News and World Report article, “5 Reasons Employers Should Hire More Workers Over Age 50,” Maryalene LaPonise suggests we “forget the myth that older workers are outdated and expensive. The best are loyal and competent and may even help a business’s bottom line.” She sees their experience, confidence, “relatability,” loyalty and ability to save companies money as the key reasons to hire older workers.

In a Brookings blog, World Bank economists Wolfgang Fengler and Johannes Koettl write, “A binary system of working 100% until retirement and then suddenly moving to 0% at an arbitrary age of around 65 is one of the great anachronisms of today’s labor market.” They argue the whole idea of a “retirement age” should be retired.

See also: How Should Workers’ Compensation Evolve?  

At WAHVE, we agree in the power and performance of experienced workers. It is clear that the attitudes of insurance firms toward older workers need to be reset. For our part, WAHVE is helping reimagine both staffing and retirement in the insurance industry and bridges the gap between insurance firms’ staffing needs and seasoned professionals’ “work-life” balance preferences as they phase into retirement.